House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes to Step Aside From Russia Investigation

Image: Devin Nunes is pursued by reporters as he arrives for a weekly meeting
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. is pursued by reporters as he arrives for a weekly meeting of the Republican Conference with House Speaker Paul Ryan and the GOP leadership on March 28, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington.J. Scott Applewhite / AP, file

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By Daniella Silva and Andrew Rafferty

House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes said Thursday he will temporarily step aside from the committee's investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election after coming under harsh criticism.

The California Republican cited ethics complaints leveled against him alleging he violated House rules by discussing classified information after making the explosive claim there may be evidence backing up President Donald Trump’s accusation that members of President Barack Obama’s administration conducted surveillance on Trump campaign aides.

“Several leftwing activist groups have filed accusations against me with the Office of Congressional Ethics," Nunes said in the statement. "The charges are entirely false and politically motivated, and are being leveled just as the American people are beginning to learn the truth about the improper unmasking of the identities of U.S. citizens and other abuses of power."

The ethics investigation does not necessarily mean a violation has occurred. Still, Nunes said it is in the "best interests" of the Intel committee and Congress for him to temporarily step aside.

Nunes set off a political firestorm last month after meeting with a secret source on White House grounds who Nunes claimed provided him with intelligence information suggesting Trump and his associates may have been "monitored" by U.S. intelligence during his transition. The surprise announcement, along with Nunes’ refusal to reveal his source, led to questions from members on both sides of the aisle about whether Nunes had gotten the information from a White House source.

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Nunes was sharply criticized for not informing ranking Democratic member Rep. Adam Schiff or other members of the committee that he was reviewing the documents before briefing Trump of his findings and speaking to reporters. Schiff, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats on the intelligence committee called for Nunes to recuse himself.

Related: McCain: 'Bizarre' Behavior by House Intel Committee Leaders

He later backed down from the explosive claim, saying he could not be sure that Trump and his associates were "monitored."

Members of the Trump administration have largely skirted questions about who Nunes met with, but the New York Times reported last week that two White House staffers were involved in the briefing.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday that Nunes’ decision was “up to the House” and claimed the fallout from the investigation “wasn’t a problem for us.”

Texas Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, along with assistance from Representatives Trey Gowdy and Tom Rooney, will temporarily take charge of the investigation, according to Nunes’ statement.

Following the announcement, Schiff, D- California, said he "respected" Nunes' decision.

"I know this was not an easy decision for the Chairman, with whom I have worked well for many years. He did so in the best interests of the committee and I respect that decision," Schiff said.

"The important work of investigating the Russian involvement in our election never subsided, but we have a fresh opportunity to move forward in the unified and nonpartisan way that an investigation of this seriousness demands," he added.

House Speaker Paul Ryan said that the intelligence leader continued to have his trust. Ryan added that he "fully supported" Nunes' decision to step aside, as the issue had become a "distraction" to the investigation.

“Devin Nunes has earned my trust over many years for his integrity and dedication to the critical work that the intelligence community does to keep America safe," Ryan said in a statement. "He continues to have that trust, and I know he is eager to demonstrate to the Ethics Committee that he has followed all proper guidelines and laws."

The Senate is conducting its own investigation into Russian interference of the election.

Alex Moe contributed.